SUWON, South Korea – A South Korean (search) court sentenced a U.S. soldier to three years in prison Thursday for killing a woman in a drunken-driving accident, then fleeing the scene. Three other people were injured.
Sgt. Jerry S. Onken (search), 33, of Onamia, Minn., was the first U.S. soldier to be handed over to local authorities before trial under revised rules in 2001 giving South Korea greater authority over accused GIs.
Onken had admitted drinking three bottles of beer and two whiskey shots hours before the collision at an intersection on Nov. 28. He also admitted fleeing the scene in panic.
Prosecutors had sought a five-year prison term. The charge usually carries a sentence from five years to life imprisonment in South Korea.
Judge Kim Chul-hyun (search) called Onken's offenses "very serious" but said the reduced sentence accounted for Onken's statements of regret and a 13-year military career in which he won 15 awards.
Onken, a member of the 1-43 Air Defense Artillery Battalion based in Suwon, south of Seoul, was expressionless as the sentence was announced. "I'd just like to say, I'm truly sorry for the crimes I have committed," he said.
Under the Status of Forces Agreement, which covers the 37,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea, Seoul has primary jurisdiction over U.S. soldiers accused of serious crimes committed when off duty.
The U.S. military maintains jurisdiction over troops who commit crimes while on duty.
The conduct of U.S. soldiers is a sensitive matter in South Korea, which has played host to hundreds of thousands of American troops since the Korean War ended with an armistice in 1953.
Last year, huge protests erupted across the country after U.S. military trials acquitted two American soldiers of negligent homicide in the deaths of two 13-year-old South Korean girls. The soldiers were on a training mission when their armored vehicle struck the teenagers.